The science fiction slash horror film Life, which is set on the International Space Station, proposes the ultimate in worst case scenarios for its characters: You are trapped in a self-contained environment with an anomalous, amorphous, at least instinctively intelligent and highly adaptive alien life form picked up on Mars and it has proven to be extremely deadly. So how do you contain and or eliminate it onboard? Or worse, how do you ensure that it never gets to make planetfall? Because, believe it or not, even though the Pentagon has contingency plans for a military-like invasion by aliens, there currently exists no protocol for a response for an alien that has breached containment and is loose on planet Earth.
The fear of such a thing happening is akin to the basic fears triggered by coming into contact with the unknown, the other, the stranger, the outsider, the invader and, yes, the alien that is now inside what was once thought to be secure territory. The movie Life takes advantage of this atavistic fear response and leaves us — after a couple hours (film-wise) of battling a monster while trapped in a small space — wondering what might be done should an alien life form (and a deadly one at that), for whatever reason, becomes a threat on Earth due to an inability to keep it contained. GeekWire spoke with John Rummel, senior scientist at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute in Mountain View, California, about such a potential threat.
When asked if there were any sort of provisions to respond to a runaway or escaped Mars organism on Earth, Rummel pointed out that, at present, there was no protocol for dealing with an alien outbreak or breakout.
“None, at this moment,” he told GeekWire. “We have to catch one first!” he added. “When we commit to a sample-return and biohazard containment facility, those questions would addressed both by NASA and by the regulatory agencies having authority over the importation of exotic organisms to the U.S. (and elsewhere on Earth).”
As frightening as the thought may be, and it is a thought made more frightening with Hollywood movies like Life, it should be noted that there is a protocol in place for the procurement and containment of samples being brought back from Mars (or any other mission target). As GeekWire explained, samples from Mars are to be brought back to Earth in redundantly sealed containers and immediately transported to a containment facility.
But where such a facility might be located is anyone’s guess. According to Rummel, “No decisions have been made on the precise nature of the in-flight containment, the containment facility itself, or its location. Look for the National Environmental Policy Act review process to be employed by NASA to address those issues, when NASA is ready.”
At present, there are three Mars sample return missions planned by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), Russia, and China. Although the general rules of containment and transfer of a Mars sample by NASA and the ESA are available, it is as yet unknown as to what lengths China and Russia will take to secure their respective samples and implement safety protocols against potential breaches.
To date, alien life has yet to be detected on Mars. However, given what has been learned about the Red Planet’s past and that there was once water-favorable conditions, there remains hope that the planet either still is home to microbial life or will one day surrender fossil evidence to prove that there once was life.
As to the former and any danger such alien microbes might offer, Rummel told the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston in February, according to the Inquisitr, indefinite containment is an option.
“If we bring samples back from either Europa or Mars, we will contain them until hazard testing demonstrates that there is no danger and no life, or continue the containment indefinitely while we study the material.”
But that containment would be on Earth. At least in the fictitious universe of Life, the containment of the Mars sample was on the International Space Station. But safety protocols and security systems fail.
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